Current housing law is piecemeal, inadequate, incoherent and obscure, with 85% of experts deeming it not fit for purpose, a report prompted by the Grenfell Tower fire has found.
Outdated and lax housing legislation, shackled to its Victorian origins, has failed to prioritise tenant safety or ensure them meaningful rights, the report commissioned by housing charity Shelter said.
The charity said the failings the review highlighted were likely to have contributed to the June 14 high-rise blaze, thought to have killed around 80 people.
The study, Closing The Gaps: Health And Safety In Housing, is one of several reviews announced following the fire, which also prompted a public inquiry and criminal investigation.
It laments a lack of coherence in housing health and safety law as “competing alternative rationales” have emerged in an attempt to modernise its Victorian heritage, which focused on public health and morals.
It said local authorities were also struggling to balance regulation, wishing to avoid placing “unnecessarily burdensome” demands on landlords while maintaining and improving housing standards.
Shelter’s chief executive Polly Neate said: “The laws which are meant to protect people in their homes are inadequate and outdated, stretching back to the Victorian times.
“They’ve failed so catastrophically that those living in social housing are no longer safe.
“And while the Grenfell inquiry is ongoing, our review shows these lax laws likely played a part in the tragedy.”
Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Kent surveyed just under a thousand (940) renters, home owners, landlords, and housing lawyers online between August and September.
Some 87% of the housing experts who responded said they did not feel the current legislation was fit for purpose, while 94% felt problems with enforcement were undermining the law.
The lack of legal aid has lessened tenants’ ability to challenge defects, while the threat of retaliatory evictions has meant private tenants are less likely to speak up, the review said.
Researchers also found that much housing law was divorced from practical reality, making “obscure distinctions, which have little relationship with the everyday experiences of poor conditions”.
One respondent, a surveyor, said he was aware of some private landlords who specialised in housing vulnerable people – not to protect them but because they were less likely to complain and easier to exploit.
One of the biggest changes occupiers wanted to see was better communication with their landlords, an issue highlighted by the “heartbreaking” blog posts of Grenfell residents complaining that their fire safety fears were going unheard.
David Cowan, who co-authored the report, said the fact that there was no easy answer to the question of who had responsibility for a front door “absolutely epitomises all of the problems in the law”.
“It’s shocking, it’s concerning, it’s ludicrous, ridiculous and dangerous.”
He added: “I’ve been an academic for 26 years, a professor for 14, and I tried to read the building regulations.
“I’ve got no idea. I don’t understand them.
“I’ll hold my hands up and say, despite my many years of being in academia…I don’t understand them. That’s just outrageous isn’t it?”
A clear and centralised new housing act was needed to consolidate and reform the existing piecemeal layers, he said.
Shelter’s chief executive added that if there was no urgent reform of housing law, tenants would remain at risk in their own homes.
They are encouraging politicians to back Labour MP Karen Buck’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill during its second reading in Parliament in early 2018.